Monday, April 07, 2014

Friday, April 04, 2014

April 4, 1994

What was the most important game in the history of the major leagues? Perhaps it was one of the games that could be argued to have been the very first major league game (the National Association’s first game on May 4, 1871 between Cleveland and Fort Wayne; the National League’s on April 22, 1876 between Boston and Philadelphia; or the American League’s on April 24, 1901, between Cleveland and Chicago). Maybe it was October 3, 1951 as Bobby Thomson hit The Shot Heard Round the World. You would get a lot of support for April 15, 1947 as Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and rightfully so. From a business standpoint, consider April 14, 1953, the Braves’ first game in Milwaukee after fifty years of franchise stability, or April 10, 1961 as the second Senators hosted the White Sox to open the expansion era.

Or maybe you’d point out that I’ve not attempted to define what makes a game important as opposed to the circumstances that led to it, and that too many factors would go into doing so to produce a coherent result. There have literally been hundreds of thousands of games in major league history, and so this exercise is inherently silly. But one question I can answer with absolute certainty is “What was the most important game to you, personally?” And that was the 1994 Opening Day game between the Mariners and the Indians, the first regular season game ever played at Jacobs Field.

By late 1993, I was pretty interested in sports, but not baseball. Baseball simply had not captured my interest the way that football and basketball had. I really can’t put my finger on why that was, as my personality even at a young age was well-suited to quiet contemplation, patient and passive spectatorship, and interest in numbers and factoids. It is obvious now that baseball is the perfect sport for me, but it was no less true long before I knew that.

I suppose I can assign some of the blame for this to the Indians. The organization was mired in a few decades of persistent losing, and there was no excitement surrounding the team. I was (sadly) a sports talk radio listener at this point and the Browns dominated the Cleveland scene (they still do, of course, but to a lesser extent). There was no social or peer pressure to follow the Indians, and thus in a pre-internet, no cable household, baseball in general. My dad was a casual baseball fan; I remember watching some of the 1993 World Series on a Friday or Saturday night. We also went to one of the Indians final games at Municipal Stadium in September 1993, but it was on a Sunday and my most indelible memory of the whole thing was fans huddling around a gentleman watching the Browns on a mini TV.

However, the tone started to shift a little bit in the spring of 1994, as there seemed to be genuine optimism regarding the Indians and excitement for the opening of Jacobs Field. I added free agent signings Dennis Martinez and Eddie Murray to the list of Indian players whose names I knew (Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton, Jose Mesa, maybe Sandy Alomar), but was obviously still far from engaged as any sort of fan.

Then April 3, 1994 rolled around, the first regular season game at Jacobs Field between the Indians and the Mariners. Dennis Martinez v. Randy Johnson. Even as a kid I had a decent sense of history, so I believe that I was aware and interested in this event, but sadly not solely for it just being an Opening Day baseball game. It was pretty much the last time that I wouldn’t be interested in a major league game just on the basis of it being a baseball game.

The details that follow are all courtesy of the play-by-play account, as I have very little memory of the specifics of this game. The details of most games become fuzzy over time, replaced by memories of specific moments and a general haze. This is especially true for me with the earliest games I remember, and while the (gulp) decades that have elapsed are certainly a contributing factor, I don’t think it’s the only one, or even the primary one. Rather, my memories from this time suffer from my inability at the time to process baseball in context--the lack of a real-time knowledge base from which to differentiate those events that were truly memorable from those that were more mundane. I also would cite the lack of keeping score, which could be dismissed as a crutch in lieu of actual memories, but in my opinion is an essential tool with which to place the events of the game within the context of the game itself, let alone across time. Even in a typical game with seventy-five plate appearances, I find it’s easy to lose track of the truth and replace it with one’s own narrative in absence of a trusty scoresheet.

Seattle scored in the first and third to take a 2-0 lead. Meanwhile, Randy Johnson was pitching a no-hitter, which was notable for a couple reasons beyond the obvious. One, Johnson, while not yet established as a Hall of Fame super-ace, had already pitched a no-hitter and was clearly one of the leading candidates to do so again among active pitchers. Secondly, the only Opening Day no-hitter had been thrown by Bob Feller for the Tribe, and Feller was in attendance for the opening of the new era in Indians baseball. It was sometime around the seventh inning when I got home from school and started listening to this familiar yet also newish (to me) sport of baseball on the radio. It may sound overly dramatic and absurd, but it is not untrue to say that, literally, my life would never be the same.

In the eighth, the Indians finally got something going offensively. Candy Maldonado led off with a walk (that was about the only thing he did well in 1994), the fifth surrendered by Johnson (a reminder that this was pre-super-ace Johnson). Sandy Alomar singled to break up the no-hitter, a wild pitch moved the runners up, and Manny Ramirez doubled them in to tie the game.

Johnson was relieved by Tim Davis in the ninth, and the Indians rallied with two out on an Albert Belle double and Eddie Murray infield single, but Paul Sorrento struck out. In the tenth, the Mariners scored off Jose Mesa thanks mainly to singles by Ken Griffey and Kevin Mitchell, but Bobby Ayala and Kevin King couldn’t close it--the Indians rallied again. After Alomar struck out swinging to open the inning, Ramirez walked (Wayne Kirby pinch-ran) and Jim Thome hit a pinch-hit double. That’s right--Mark Lewis started the game at third over Thome given the latter’s perceived ineptness against southpaws. Somewhat bizarrely, Kenny Lofton was intentionally walked, Omar Vizquel hit into a fielder’s choice to score Kirby, and Carlos Baerga flew out, pushing the 3-3 game to an eleventh inning.

Eric Plunk retired Seattle in order in the top of the inning. In the bottom, King got Belle to ground out before Murray doubled. Sorrento flied out and Murray took third. Seattle intentionally walked Alomar to get to Kirby, who was now batting in Ramirez’s spot. Kirby lined a single down the left field line, and the Indians won the game 4-3.

It is difficult to exaggerate how much this game changed my attitude towards baseball. It might not have been entirely immediate, but if not it was pretty close. Memories are a bit fuzzy at this point, but for whatever reason, I remember being dragged along by my parents to shop for a refrigerator on Sunday April 10. The Indians’ fifth game of the season had been rained out at Kansas City on Saturday, so Chris Nabholz was skipped in the rotation and Dennis Martinez was pitching again on the TV at the appliance store. This confused me, and my dad explained to me that the fifth starter is often skipped in such a situation. The point of this mundane story? I knew who the fifth starter was.

That spring and summer, I became obsessed with both the Indians and collecting baseball cards. I hated the White Sox as the Indians chased them in the division, I followed all the intrigue of Albert Belle’s corked bat suspension and rejoiced when he homered in his return. I penciled Kenny Rogers’ perfect game into the list in my Information Please Sports Almanac, the baseball section of which had previously not gotten much attention but now was well-worn. By the end of the year I had subscriptions to two baseball publications (Beckett Baseball Card Monthly and Baseball Digest). I was starting to apply my natural interest in figures and analysis into what would, by spring of the next year, be a nascent interest in sabermetrics and by the next year be a full-blown obsession.

And when the players went on strike? I was disappointed, to be sure, but an event that potentially could have crushed a young fan before he had a chance to be fully invested had zero impact on my newfound infatuation. The next spring I eagerly learned all the names of the Indians’ replacement players and was ready to cheer for our ace Joe Slusarski, our middle-of-the-order thumper Joe Biasucci, our Kenny Lofton replacement Eric Yelding. After April 4, 1994, none of that really mattered. I was a baseball fanatic for good.

Would I have found the game in lieu of the excitement of this game? Given the Indians’ 1994 resurgence, I assume I would have, just not as soon. But had the Indians not emerged as a competitive team at that point, it gets murkier. Had I grown much older without discovering the wonder of baseball, it would have been too late to have it as an integral part of my mid-childhood and I can’t imagine being the same level of fan that I am today. But after the Opening Day game, I’m convinced that the Indians could have lost the rest of their games and the spark would not have been extinguished. I know precisely when I became a baseball fan--twenty years ago today.